Lead for a Compassionate Organization



Lead for a Compassionate Organization

Nancy Green, CEO of Athleta, a Gap Inc. brand, experienced compassion early in her career. When she joined Gap, she was twenty-five and soon after she became pregnant with her first child. “I didn’t think I could do the job because I didn’t see other women that were doing the job as mothers.” But there was one exception. Another woman on the team pushed her to come back or else she’d never know what was possible. It worked. Nancy continued to grow at the company, leading to successive leadership appointments all the way to the C-suite—while raising four children.

The experience of being shown compassion made Nancy commit to always strive to cultivate a compassionate culture in her teams. In our interview with her, she said, “By showing compassion for the people we work with, by genuinely connecting with them human to human, and by recognizing their whole person and life, we will have far stronger professional relationships and results.”

Nancy’s approach to leadership is to be compassionate by constantly balancing power with softness: “I can be very demanding, and I have extremely high standards, but I understand that people are human. I try to balance being powerful and soft at the same time.” In this way, Nancy balances the two aspects of the matrix of wise compassion—the intention to be of benefit to others—on the one hand, and wise discernment—considering business objectives—on the other.

In a compassionate organizational culture, people support one another in being successful and happy. The culture supports positive intentions toward others, and at the same time instills the wisdom and professionalism in everyone to make tough choices. This includes sometimes doing things that are difficult but will benefit the culture and the organization in the long term. If your organization cares for employees and their well-being, those employees will be happier and more productive. And if your employees are more productive, the organizational bottom line will benefit.

As explained in chapter 9, organizations with more compassionate leaders have stronger connections between people, increased collaboration, higher levels of trust, enhanced loyalty, and lower turnover. Compassion makes employees feel more valued and have more pride in their work. For these reasons, compassion is a cornerstone of people-centered organizations. In this chapter, we’ll take a closer look at the attributes of a compassionate organization, the relationship between compassion and trust, and the power of social cohesion.

Attributes of the Compassionate Organization

When you walk into the offices of a compassionate organization, you can feel it: from the way you’re greeted by the receptionist to how people engage with one another. In a compassionate organization, the lowest-level employees are respected as equals and encouraged to take an active part in organizational success. US accounting firm Moss Adams has many compassionate traits in its culture—and it shows. When you enter the reception area of its headquarters in Seattle, you’re greeted with a genuine smile from the receptionist. If you have been there before, chances are he’ll remember your name and quite likely, he’ll also remember your preferred drink. He isn’t trained to do this. It comes naturally, because he’s part of a culture that values true interest in others. This is one of the hallmarks of a compassionate organization.

Compassionate organizations focus on caring for the whole person, not just the working person. Health, family, and private lives matter. When Cisco started planning for its global mindfulness and resiliency program, the leadership team knew it would benefit the business, but that was not the main objective. The main objective was for people to be taken care of as whole beings. Therefore, they considered how the program could be offered to employees and their family members. In creating the program, Cisco understood that compassion and caring doesn’t stop at the office door or parking lot, but extends to employees’ lives beyond corporate walls.

In a compassionate organization, people are seen as human beings before they’re seen as a job title. This means that lower-level employees are equally recognized as an integral part of the team. Meeting with lower-level employees is a good litmus test for organizational compassion. If the receptionist, clerical workers, or the cleaning crew are hidden away, avoid eye contact, or don’t greet you, it is a good indicator of how valued they feel and the level of caring and compassion in the organizational culture.

Bob Chapman, chairman and CEO of manufacturing company Barry-Wehmiller, tells a story in his book Everybody Matters about the power of listening to your people. Encouraged by Chapman, a factory worker shared his experience of the organization’s culture: “I walk in the same door with engineers, accountants, and other people who work in the office. Why is it that when they go to the office and I go into the plant, we’re treated completely differently? You trust them to decide when to get a cup of coffee or call home, but you don’t trust me.” The next day, Chapman and his leadership team removed the time clocks and break bells and issued the following statement: “No matter what door people walk in, everyone is treated the same—with the trust and respect they deserve.” Barry-Wehmiller is a great example of an organization that incorporates compassion as an intrinsic part of its culture. And not just as words or slogans, but where it truly matters—as part of its policies and procedures.

We have observed that compassion in organizations is gaining traction around the globe. Leaders are starting to see the benefits compassion brings to their culture, their people, and their clients. But it’s still new territory for most organizations. And, unfortunately, many of those organizations are still stuck in the old paradigm of treating people as tools for maximizing shareholder wealth. Many leaders still believe that a compassionate, people-centered culture and a healthy, shareholder-focused bottom-line focus are mutually exclusive. The result? Corporate cultures that put inhuman pressure on their people.

To be clear: pressure is not a problem—if administered with care. A global bank we worked with provided a troubling example of the mismanaged application of pressure. During a training session, we noticed a high level of tension emanating from one of the participants, a forty-something-year-old man. He had a hard time sitting still. Constantly fidgeting, he seemed uncomfortable in his own skin. When one of us asked him if he was all right, he exploded. With tears welling in his eyes, he shouted that he had no time to sit around for a session. He’d just worked sixteen hours nonstop on a project that was far from done and he was only participating in this training to meet his manager’s expectations.

In a compassionate organization, there’s space and encouragement for self-compassion—certainly not the case in this example. Compassionate organizations do their best to help their people take care of themselves. This starts with the right to draw lines and set boundaries, as discussed in chapter 11, especially when the pressure starts to build.

The problem when pressure gets too high is that it can become habitual, and working long hours and not getting enough sleep becomes the norm. When we are under pressure, we tend to just try to push through. We get stuck in action mode until we collapse. So the skill of self-compassion must be trained and ingrained in the culture before the going gets tough. An important step in this process is to create a physical environment that allows and encourages self-compassion and care.

When it designed its new headquarters in Sweden, IKEA designed it for self-care. The building includes several rooms for power napping, mindfulness practice, and physical movement. But unlike most companies with similar initiatives, these rooms are not hidden away in the basement or in some fixed-up storage room. IKEA places these rooms close to the entrance, so you can’t avoid seeing them as you enter the building. Self-compassion is placed at the front door.

The mental environment is equally important for self-compassion, and the legitimacy of setting boundaries and saying “no.” Ted Kezios, global head of benefits for Cisco, shared with us how they have created a culture where it is fully accepted to withdraw if one feels personally overwhelmed. He got to experience this firsthand when one day, in the midst of finalizing a large project, he received a call about a serious family issue. While his first impulse was to stay with the team and push through, his team members saw that he was not well, and insisted on him going home. “It was so touching and heartwarming,” he shared. “Everyone got together around me, with genuine love and concern. While I didn’t want to abandon them, they assured me they had my back and urged me to go home. I was deeply touched by feeling their genuine concern and support, despite the work pressure they also had.”

Creating a compassionate culture is about having people who are willing and able to bring compassion to work. Building compassion into recruitment helps create this type of culture. When LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner interviews job candidates, he likes to ask, “What would you do if you were about to step into a meeting with a very important client to close a deal and you get a call that a valued colleague has been rushed to hospital?” There’s no correct answer to this question, but the reflection helps in getting a sense of how the applicant prioritizes compassion.

A global professional services firm we work with uses community service as a way of creating a compassionate culture. We were invited to facilitate a workshop as part of a three-day offsite with their ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) offices and take part in their community work. The event took place in Cambodia, which had just been subjected to serious flooding that resulted in lack of food and clean water for many people. For the first full day, all partners, consultants, and staff were packing and distributing food, helping rebuild schools, and doing other humanitarian work. Everyone, from secretaries to managing partners, were working shoulder to shoulder to alleviate the suffering of other human beings. At the end of the day, back at the offsite venue, the regional managing partner took the stage and exclaimed: “This is what we are. This is why we are here. To be of service.” The atmosphere in the room was palpable. Compassion could be seen in the eyes of everyone.

Take a moment to reflect on how compassionate your organizational culture is. Imagine for a moment that your employees are actually your family—your parents, your husband or wife, your children, your siblings. How would you like them to feel if they worked in your organization? How would you want them to feel every day as they arrived at the office? Every day as they left the office? Does your current culture align with how you would want your family to feel about your organization? If not, what could you change that would increase compassion in your organizational culture?

Compassion and Trust

In a compassionate organization, people know their colleagues have their backs. Employees feel trusted, and they have trust in others. Trust and compassion go hand in hand. When you know your leader has genuine concern for you, you’ll have natural trust. And when he or she knows you genuinely care about the work, the team and the organization, again trust will follow. In chapter 7, we showed that trust provides employees with a sense of safety, instills in them a sense of meaning, and significantly contributes to their overall sense of happiness. It’s an equally significant contributor to an employee’s sense of purpose, engagement, and performance. Trust speeds up processes and makes organizational culture more efficient and more productive. As professor, consultant, and author Warren Bennis wrote, “Trust is the lubricant that makes it possible for organizations to work.”

Trust is a relational quality between people, but it’s also a cultural characteristic. Some cultures have a strong sense of trust; others don’t. Organizational cultures with high levels of trust have a real advantage over those with a low level of trust.

A great example of how trust enables the speed of business is a company that was founded on speed: FedEx. FedEx has been consistently included on Fortune magazine’s lists of “World’s Most Admired Companies” and “100 Best Companies to Work for in America.” One of the reasons for this consistent admiration is FedEx’s trust in and commitment to its people. CEO and founder Fred Smith believes that employees should be empowered to make decisions in support of the goal of 100 percent customer satisfaction 100 percent of the time. The extent of this empowerment includes employees being able to charter flights to meet customer delivery requirements without having to seek approval, and FedEx truck drivers being able to define their own routes based on their assessment of how to best meet customer needs. These kinds of policies instill a strong sense of empowerment—and responsibility—in each employee. They also help develop a mutual sense of trust, which speeds up the processes and interactions and enhances performance.

The efficacy of trust can also be observed by comparing processes and policies of a company in different countries. In our work, we engage in contracting with organizations for our services around the globe. Some years ago, we started working with the Danish office of a global consulting firm. Our contracting process was simple. Once we agreed on the scope of work with the business leader, we sent an email confirming the details, price, and start date and were good to go.

A year later, we began working with the same firm in an office in the United States. After an agreement was reached with the business leader, we were instructed to connect with the procurement department. We were asked to submit various forms and then provided with a lengthy contract for review. When we asked to have a meeting to review the contract, we were told by the procurement department that they would only meet with us if our lawyer was present. We then spent several months going back and forth on details and experienced multiple delays for various required reviews. Once the contract was signed, it still took a couple of months before the actual work could commence and a few more months after starting before a purchase order was created so we could send an invoice. All in all, the process from “let’s work together” to working today took eight months and many resources in the United States, as opposed to a couple of days between two people in Denmark.

The difference between the two experiences is stark and can be partly explained by the cultural level of trust in the two countries. Denmark, according to OECD research, scores at the top in terms of trust, while the United States scores much lower. The level of national trust levels spill over into how companies operate in the country.

In cultures, whether national or organizational, where there’s a low level of trust, we build control mechanisms, policies, and bureaucracy. These levels of bureaucracy and control hamper efficiency. More importantly, such control neurologically impacts us in ways that shape our minds, our behavior, and ultimately the culture we work in.

The research of Paul J. Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics at Claremont Graduate University, has found that the culture we work in directly impacts our behavior and thereby, how we contribute to that culture. In our discussion with him, he shared his findings on how leaders who exhibit compassionate behavior enhance the oxytocin levels in the people they lead. Oxytocin enables higher levels of trust, fosters kindness, and increases generosity. Paul’s research also found that trust can lead people—and the cultures they help shape—into a virtuous cycle. When you show trust in someone, oxytocin is released in their brain, impacting their behavior, which in turn impacts the release of oxytocin in your brain. In this sense, trust is contagious. And the more that it’s induced in the culture, the more efficiently the organization will operate. In much the same way, distrust is contagious. Distrust your people, and their oxytocin levels will literally dry up, making them less trusting—and in turn, will cause the same to happen to you.

Even with all of these benefits, trust is fragile. It can be shattered in a moment. Dr. Ritu Anand, deputy CHRO of Tata Consultancy Services, one of the world’s largest IT services companies, has observed that when there’s a gap between what a leader says and does, trust vanishes. “Keep commitments, be accountable, behave ethically; that’s how you keep trust,” she revealed to us. “Do the right thing rather than the expedient thing—always.” She went on to explain, “You maintain a culture of trust by telling the truth, even when it’s hard. People ultimately remember you for what you do. Be trustworthy, rather than just talking about it, and you can create an outstanding culture.” The golden rule for creating a trusting culture is for leaders to put their words into action, to model the behaviors that they extol. Consistency and authenticity between what’s said and what’s done creates trust for the long run.

Trust matters. It impacts you, your people, your culture, and your organization. As a leader, you represent the strongest influence on the creation of your organization’s culture.

Take a moment to consider how you can show more trust in your people. How can you catalyze and perpetuate the virtuous cycle of trust? These are important questions to consider, especially since trust is critical to maintaining social cohesion.

Compassion and the Power of Social Cohesion

Social cohesion is the invisible glue that connects us as human beings in cultures. It’s the bond that makes us stick together, collaborate, and collectively contribute to a shared purpose. Compassion and trust create social cohesion, and social cohesion can make the difference between a good company and a great company.

To better understand this relationship, consider Southwest Airlines. Southwest is the most profitable airline in the world and one of the fastest-growing companies since it was established in 1976. The company made headlines throughout the airline industry when it achieved record-setting gate turnaround times. Turnaround time may not sound exciting, but in the airline industry, turnaround time is money. As Southwest cofounder and former CEO Herb Kelleher said, “Planes make money in the air, not sitting on the ground.” When planes are parked, they’re a direct cost to the company. So when Southwest cracked the turnaround time code, it was big news throughout the airline industry. Of course, in a short time, every other airline copied Southwest’s turnaround procedures.

But there was a problem. Nothing changed for the other airlines when they copied Southwest’s actions.

Even using Southwest’s procedures, other airlines couldn’t cut their turnaround times. Why? Because other airlines lacked Southwest’s social cohesion. Southwest had established a strong culture of compassion in its teams, which led to a stronger sense of social cohesion—the bond for collaboration. To get a plane turned around requires up to twelve different teams to collaborate efficiently and willingly. Pilots, ticketing agents, baggage handlers, maintenance teams, and tarmac crews all need to work together to more quickly get a plane in the air. In most airlines, these functions aren’t particularly keen to collaborate because of distinct power hierarchies and cross-team disputes. The culture instilled in Southwest Airlines, however, is one of genuine respect and concern. Pilots aren’t seen as superior, and maintenance crew members aren’t seen as expendable. They’re all part of the same organism, with the same purpose of getting their passengers in the air as quickly as possible—and accomplishing this while experiencing joy and kindness toward one another.

Much to the chagrin of other airlines, operational procedures are not the cause of quick turnaround times—compassion and social cohesion are.

Every organization needs social cohesion. Every organization has different teams with different roles and functions that must coordinate efforts seamlessly to be successful. But without a compassionate and trusting culture, this coordination can be challenging. How often have you experienced friction and active, but hidden, resistance between functions like marketing and finance or operations and sales?

Today, social cohesion is eroding because of inequality, financial pressure, technology, and globalization. Inequality makes the lowest-paid employee resent the highest paid. Unreasonable financial pressure from shareholders makes leaders single-mindedly focus on short term results. Technology separates us, making it harder and harder to treat one another as human beings. And globalization removes the sense of belonging to a tribe. But cultivating social cohesion in your organization is both a competitive advantage and a tremendous gift to your employees. It improves performance. It builds trust. It enables purpose. It engenders happiness. And it creates the foundation on which a compassionate culture is built.

Consider the benefits of a more compassionate organizational culture. How could it enhance performance and engender a stronger sense of cohesion and connectedness? Consider how being a more compassionate organization could be part of your strategy. And if you are willing, why not get started today?

Quick Tips and Reflections

  1.  Consider ways to introduce wise compassion into your organization: What resources could you share? What programs could you offer? What space could you provide for people to practice?
  2.  Commit to at least one thing you will do to focus more on the “whole person” at work—to see people equally and inspire greater care and kindness.
  3.  Identify ten people at various levels and from different areas of your organization and invite them to describe the culture; ask whether they feel cared for and how much they feel trusted.
  4.  Ask each of the ten people you have identified to point out one policy and procedure that they find negatively impacts their performance and engagement; commit to acting on at least one of their suggestions.
  5.  Consider ways to enhance social cohesion at work, including how people are engaged, how teams are recognized, how people are treated, how caring and kindness are brought into everyday work.

About the Authors

Rasmus Hougaard is the founder and Managing Director of Potential Project, the global leading provider of leadership and organizational effectiveness solutions based on training the mind. Rasmus has practiced and taught mindfulness for more than two decades and is recognized as a leading international authority on training the mind to be more focused, effective, and clear in an organizational context. His first book, One Second Ahead: Enhance Your Performance with Mindfulness, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2015. He is a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review as well as a sought-after speaker for his thought leadership. Before founding Potential Project, Rasmus worked at the Sony Corporation and as a researcher in organizational development.

Jacqueline Carter is an International Partner and North American Director for Potential Project. She has over twenty years of experience working with organizations around the globe to enhance effectiveness and improve performance. Jacqueline is a coauthor of One Second Ahead: Enhance Your Performance at Work with Mindfulness. She is a regular contributor to business publications including Harvard Business Review, and is a sought-after speaker for her thought leadership, knowledge, and engaging facilitation skills. She holds a master’s degree in organizational behavior and undergraduate degrees in labor management relations and mathematics. Before joining Potential Project, Jacqueline held a number of senior leadership roles and worked with Deloitte Consulting’s Change Leadership practice.






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